U.S. recovers balloon debris, China protests

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed by the United States over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on February 5, 2023
| Photo Credit: Reuters

United States authorities have begun collecting remnants of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down on Sunday, sparking a diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.

The Chinese government on Tuesday reiterated its criticism of the shooting down of the balloon, calling it an “overreaction”.

The Biden administration has asserted that downing the balloon is not a violation of international law.

Also read: U.S., China trade barbs over ‘spy balloon’

“The answer is unequivocally ‘No’,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on a Monday briefing call.

“The airship does not belong to the U.S., it belongs to China,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said, when asked if Beijing had requested the U.S. to return the debris.

However, the U.S. has no plans to return the debris to Beijing. “I know no such intention or plans to return it,” said Mr Kirby.

“The unmanned Chinese airship is of civilian nature,” Ms. Mao said. “Its unintended entry into U.S. airspace is entirely unexpected and caused by force majeure. It didn’t pose any threat to any person or to the national security of the US. The U.S. should have properly handled such incidents in a calm and professional manner not involving the use of force, yet they decided to do otherwise, which is a clear overreaction.”

U.S. officials said the military had begun collecting and analysing remnants of the balloon. Air Force General Glen D. Van Herck of the U.S. Northern Command acknowledged that Chinese balloons had previously traversed U.S. airspace and there had been a “domain awareness gap”.

Also read: Puncturing ties: On China-U.S. ‘spy balloon’ row

“So those balloons, so every day as a NORAD commander it’s my responsibility to detect threats to North America,” he told reporters. “I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out…The intel community, after the fact, I believe has….made us aware of those balloons that were previously approaching North America or transited North America.”

The Biden administration “became aware” that on at least three occasions Chinese surveillance balloons transited U.S. airspace, according to Mr Kirby. However, these were for “brief periods of time” and “nothing at all” like what happened last week, in terms of duration, he said.

The balloon, according to Mr. Kirby, did have the ability to manoeuvre itself in a limited way, with propellers and a rudder like mechanism. However, the most important factor moving it along was the jet stream (i.e., wind currents at high altitudes).

U.S. officials said Chinese balloons had also been previously tracked over South Asia and East Asia. Balloons similar in appearance had been spotted over the Andaman Islands in India last year and over Japan in 2020 and 2021.

Gen. Van Herck explained why the Biden administration chose not to shoot down the balloon, first detected over Alaska on January 28, earlier, while it floated across the continental U.S., including sensitive military sites, for up to a week, and instead waited for it to drift east towards the Atlantic Ocean.

The latest balloon, he said, was “up to 200 feet tall” and carrying a large payload he would “categorise… as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet…weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds.” “From a safety standpoint,” he said, “picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky.”

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